Exaggerthinking: How to Counter It

St. Paul says (Romans 12:3) to “every person” (not just to the proud): “Do not exaggerthink.” But how do we avoid it? Some of us, because of the way we were raised – and I’m not thinking of kids whose parents were always bragging on them – are predisposed to exaggerthinking. How do we stay out of the trap?

First, a look at the text where Paul raises the issue (Romans 12:3). In spite of the way dozens of translations render verse 3, Paul does not say we are to think about ourselves. What he says is: “Don’t exaggerthink but think in a way that leads to realistic thinking” (my translation). Realistic thinking can’t happen if you are only thinking about yourself. To think realistically, we must include God and others in our thoughts.

Specifically, the first way to think realistically is to think in the light of the role God has entrusted to you (verse 3). The end of verse 3 is famously difficult for translators. It’s not that the words are difficult; it’s that Paul’s meaning has been hard to uncover. What is meant by “in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you”?

Nowhere else does Paul or any other biblical writer speak of God distributing faith to people in different measures. Because of that, most commentators think that faith here must refer to “the faith, once delivered.” They say the faith is the measure (or yardstick, that’s the idea) by which we are to think of ourselves. But then it’s hard to make sense of the idea of distributing or (more precisely) apportioning the faith once delivered.

There is a third way to take it, which seems to me most likely, though linguistic support for it is slim. Occasionally, contemporaries of Paul would use the word here translated as “faith” to describe a “trust” that has been given to a person – a stewardship. Paul himself uses the word in its verb form in this way in Titus 1:2, when he writes about “the preaching entrusted to me” – that is, given to me as a trust. God has given every member of the body of Christ a trust, a role to play, a faith to keep.

I am less likely to exaggerthink if I am playing that role, honoring that trust. I have not been given every role to play – that’s not my job; I am not smart enough for that, strong enough, or skilled enough – but neither have I been given no role to play. I have been given a trust. I must keep faith with God. Awareness of that keeps me from exaggerthinking.

A second way to avoid exaggerthink is to recognize the oneness of those who belong to Christ. (This is from Romans 12:4-5.) We belong to one another. I am yours. You are mine, but not in the way a tool in mine. I am not free to use you. You are not even mine the way a treasure is mine – a cherished book or a jewel or a work of art. You are mine the way an eye or hand is mine. As Paul puts it in verse 5, we are “members of one another.”

That means if I hurt you, I hurt myself. Taking a jab at you – including a verbal one – is like poking my own eye. If I look down on you, I look down on myself – worse, I look down on Christ. We belong together. As that truth becomes settled in my mind, as it dawns on me that I am part of something bigger, I am on my way to realistic thinking and am better equipped to recognize exaggerthink.

Third, when we are using our gifts, we will naturally think more realistically. God graced each of us with a gift (verses 6-8) that will help us keep faith with him as we perform the role entrusted to us. Actually doing the work is the fastest way to get rid of exaggerthink.  

When I’m sitting on the couch watching a football game, I am prone to give advice to the quarterback and the coaches. “You’ve had that slant route all day long. The middle linebacker is dropping too far back in the zone. Can’t you see that? Why aren’t you taking advantage of it?” Then I get up for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

But if I were behind center – even if I were 30 years old again – and there were four three-hundred-pound brutes on the other side of the line itching to beat me to a pulp, I would forget all about the slant route. I’d forget the count. I’d forget my own name. Getting out and actually doing the work, whether on the field or in the church, has a wonderful way of checking exaggerthink.

These words of S. D. Gordon are worthy of consideration. “We have nothing to do with how much ability we’ve got, or how little, but with what we do with what we have. The man with great talent is apt to be puffed up” (that’s exaggerthinking) “and the man with little [talent] to belittle the little.” (More exaggerating.) But “… much or little, ‘Our part is to be faithful,’ doing the level best with every bit and scrap.”

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